Saturday, December 21, 2013

India: a First Impression - Racial Profiling, Traffic, and Different Cities within a City

It was meal time on the (non-budget airlines) flight into Mumbai from Bangkok.  As per standard practice, the flight attendants went about up the aisle, asking "fish or chicken?" and handing out the appropriate meal as requested.  Then he came upon this particular traveler, who stared back at him, awaiting for him to pop the standard question.  He stared back blankly, and without a word, fixed a meal tray, and handed over.  "Here, Thai food."  He whispered, not expecting a comprehensible reply, moving on before the surprised author can say "thank you" in return.

Moments later, it was time to go about serving tea or coffee.  As the attendant went up the aisle asking "tea or coffee," this traveler decided to be a bit more smart-ass about it.  When the flight attendant got to his row, and before he can do anything, the traveler casually blurted, "tea please.  And do you have extra packets of sugar?"  Caught by surprised, the now wide-eyed attendant poured tea, handed sugar, and smiled, awkwardly trying to hide his embarrassment as he moved onto serving others.  And there it was, the traveler's first time getting racially profiled while flying.

For someone that flies internationally literally once every few months on average, to have such an incident, while definitely a bit disturbing, can be an interesting lead into the mind of the average Indian (rather than unproductively, say, focusing on the possible xenophobia behind the act).  In an international environment where English is of course the best chance at understanding, and in a diverse country where English is the lingua franca for its many different ethnicity, does abandoning even the perceived slim chances of communication say something about the collective mentality?

This traveler would like to speculate a bit on this topic after seeing its streets, people, and staying in a decidedly posh neighborhood.  First, the mentality could be driven by a linguistic superiority complex, a vestige of colonial heritage much similar to the Filipino case.  From stately middle class travelers on the plane to Mumbai to the lowly driver who picked up the traveler at Mumbai airport, people spoke clear English with a pride.  Itself a city drawing people from all over the subcontinent, Mumbai cannot have  working language aside from English, giving its resident a further linguistic boost.

It is an advantage, perhaps, the locals would not like the obviously non-Western visitors to chip away.  Partaking in unnecessary English conversation with these visitors may only help the visitors get better in the language in an almost native environment, while not benefiting the Indian at the same time.  Which brings the mentality of racial profiling to a second, and completely contradictory-sounding possible cause: that of an inferiority complex.  Maybe a focus on English as a local advantage is out of fear, fear that there is really nothing else the locals can claim as advantage.

Previous post touched on the issue of ignorance for even close neighbors like China among even the emigrant Indian populace.  We can only imagine that such ignorance is worse among those who have never stepped out of the country.  But what is clear is that people here seem to be very conscious about the failings of daily lives, so much so that they may exaggerate how advanced foreign societies may be just to prove the point.  On the street levels, such behavior is completely understandable.  The heavy traffic is caused by old roads with few signage/signals and are clogged with three-wheeler taxis.

Just as in the case of the Filipino wealthy, the Indian rich class stay in exclusive neighborhoods away from the constant noise and pollution on the main artery roads, surrounded to all sides by informal squatter settlements that have uniquely take on an aura of permanency and immovability.  Street children from these places would beg right outside the airport terminals.  It is hard for any local, especially a flight attendant seeing too many condescending expats, to hold their pride high given the realities on the streets.  To keep that pride may entail a bit of understandable unfriendliness.

This is just a first impression that is bound to change over the next week and a half stay.  What is clear already, though, is that India, as a great country, does not have to answer to anyone for its uniqueness, whether good or bad.  The people, such as the flight attendant, understands this, and despite similar problems, does not show the slightest sense of self-depreciating servile attitude so famously evident as "legendary friendliness" in the Philippines.  This is a powerful asset, one that will allow the populace to stay confident and continue striving forward despite obvious issues at hand.

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